Whether it is Palm trees, California houses, fast-food or Lindsay Lohan, the imagery of American pop culture is a growing source of inspiration for contemporary artists. Each week, Artsper will be presenting you an artist for our “I Love LA saga”. The artists selected are Los Angeles based or themed.
Valium, Stilnox, Xanax, if these pills don’t remind you of Los Angeles, what does? Ben Frost, renowned Australian pop artist, caught my attention with his Roy Lichtenstein dazed heroines and cartoon pop references integrated on pharmaceutical and fast-food packaging. I was more than pleased when he agreed to answer my questions and gladly entered his benzo infused world, crossroads between Valley of the dolls and acid freaks cartoon dreams.
Claire : “American pop culture with a sarcastic twist”. Would you say this phrase fits the ideas expressed in your work?
Ben: I like to express that fine line between attraction and repulsion that our consumer society presents us with every day. The media and advertising have fine tuned our buying and viewing experiences so that often the most appealing, ‘must-have’ objects of desire, are actually hiding darker secrets. There’s a duality in things like fast food, entertainment, fashion and technology that provide us with ‘quick-fix’ solutions to our competitive lifestyle cravings – but ultimately are destroying our health, emotions and the environment. I like to point out these disparities and put a spotlight on the uncomfortable reality of the ‘western condition’ that we so often try to disguise.
C: Cartoons, branding, fast food imagery are omnipresent in your work, have you always been inspired by pop culture and why?
B: I’ve always been interested in the way that certain colour combinations, exaggeration of facial features, carefully selected advertising slogans and bold logo creations can have a certain effect on the way you feel about something. Pop culture is hypnotizing, and it has been especially designed to provide an immediate positive response, so that a message can then be inserted into a viewer’s head. I try to do that with my art. The colours and the characters attract you towards the paintings, but when you look more closely you see that they’re doing horrible things to each other and things aren’t quite they way they’re supposed to be.
C: I love your work on packaging fast food and pharmaceutical, how did you come up with the idea?
Painting directly onto found packaging is a simplification of the ideas I’ve been using in my larger paintings. Rather than paint a logo in the background of a canvas, I can go out and find that logo on a package and then paint onto that. In this way there’s a sense of ‘honesty’ and a relationship to the environment or location that I may be in at any given time. I used to live above a Korean grocery store in Sydney, and I first started painting onto the boxes that I found in our shared trash bin. The Asian lettering and the strange and quirky brands and logos gave the advertising a weird and mysterious feel that reflected my feeling about advertising in general. By painting onto these things that I would see every day, it gave real personal meaning to the object and the imagery I would paint onto it. In the same way now, I’ve realized people have a very strong and intimate connection to the packaging of the products that they have used themselves over the years. Pharmaceutical packages in particular are very interesting, because of the emotions they trigger to someone who has used a certain drug over the years. Whether they’ve abused the drug, or it has cured them of something terrible, there’s almost a sense of ‘catharsis’ for certain viewers, when I paint something onto it. It reinterprates and subverts the value and meaning of the product into something more soulful or often into something quite funny.
C: You are from Australia, where does this attraction to the West come from?
B: It’s definitely a love/hate affair.
C: Do you have a particular sensitivity to Los Angeles, does this city inspire you?
B: I used to hate LA, but it always treats me well whenever I go there now. It’s the first port of call from Australia when your’e flying to the US, and I think it’s the center of the universe in a lot of ways. When I die, I want my ashes to be sprinkled somewhere in Disneyland.
C: What or who enthuses you at the moment?
B: I get excited in big supermarkets like Walmart or Kmart. I often spend hours in there looking at all the new boxes and packages, while my family waits for me in the carpark.
C: If you had to do anyone’s portrait who would it be?
It would be cool to dig up Colonel Sanders and paint his rotting face.
C: You use collage, graffiti, painting, … what is your favorite medium?
I like painting in acrylic mostly, on artworks for exhibitions. Art is about problem-solving and I most enjoy trying to work out colours and compositions and finding new dialogues that I hadn’t considered before.